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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/June 1898/Sketch of Andrew Crombie Ramsay

PSM V53 D158 Andrew C Ramsay.jpg


SIR ARCHIBALD GEIKIE, from whose Memoir the material for our sketch is derived, speaks of Sir Andrew Ramsay as having stood in the forefront of the geology of his time, and as having "by the charm of his genial nature, as well as by the enthusiasm of his devotion to science, exercised a wide influence among his contemporaries." Having joined the British Geological Survey when it was still in its infancy, and having remained on its staff during the whole of his active scientific career—"so entirely did he identify himself with the aims and work of the survey, and so largely was he instrumental in their development, that the chronicle of his life is in great measure the record also of the progress of that branch of the public service."

Andrew Crombie Ramsay was born in Glasgow, Scotland, January 31, 1814, and died at Beaumaris, island of Anglesey, Wales, December 9, 1891. His father, William Ramsay, was a manufacturer of commercial chemicals, and invented processes that might have made his fortune if patented, but gave them to the world. He was a child of remarkable determination. Being in delicate health, he was sent to the parish school in the seacoast village of Salcoats, where in the natural and physical features and scenery of the region there was much that might have contributed to rouse the observing faculties. In time he was enrolled in the grammar school at Glasgow. After the death of his father, in 1827, he was placed in a counting-house, with the expectation that he would follow a mercantile career, and afterward in the warehouse of a firm of linen merchants, where he seems to have been unhappy. He had acquired a taste for literary pursuits, was "an omnivorous reader," and from the very outset "kept his interests broad." One of the developments of this side of his life was seen in the production of a manuscript periodical, Ramsay's Miscellaneous Journal, by himself and a few other young men, of which he was the editor during 1835 and 1836. About 1837 he formed a partnership with a Mr. Anderson as dealers in cloth and calico, the failure of which after three years left him poorer and disgusted with an occupation that had never had any great attraction for him.

His attention was gradually drawn to geology by the remarkable features presented in the island of Arran, where he was accustomed to spend his summer vacations. Having become acquainted with some of the professors and students of the University of Glasgow, he used to meet Prof. J. P. Nichol there, and enjoy long walks with him, and was introduced to Lyell by Lyon Playfair, who as a student in Glasgow boarded in his mother's house, and accompanied the "father of modern geology" in some of his excursions. In the successive tours and excursions he took he went over ground which had been partly explored by the earlier geologists and of the structure of which they had published accounts that could not, however, "be regarded as more than outlines of a whole subject, which would require years of patient research before its details could be mastered." He had not intended to criticise their work or to publish his observations, which he made for his own gratification, but "gradually he found that various facts met with by him in the course of his rambles had not been noticed by others before him." He spoke of them to Professor Nichol, who, looking forward to the meeting of the British Association in Glasgow in 1840, was preparing a geological model of the island of Arran. He made Ramsay secretary of the local subcommittee of which he was convener, and in reporting the success of his work gave his young friend the whole credit for it. Before this meeting Ramsay read his first scientific paper, which was a description of the work he had been drawn into, at the session held on the eve of an excursion which the geologists of the association took to Arran. Toward the end of this year he published a small book, with a map and illustrations—The Geology of the Island of Arran from Original Survey—which "has long since taken its place among the classics of Scottish geology."

Murchison, having met Ramsay at the British Association, had formed a high opinion of his geological capacity, and now, while the young man was preparing his book for the printer, invited him to accompany him on a geological excursion to Russia. The invitation was a welcome surprise to Ramsay, and he proceeded at once to take advantage of it. When he reached London, in March, 1841, he was informed that Murchison had given up taking him to Russia, but had procured him a place as assistant geologist to De la Beche, who was making the Ordnance Geological Survey for the Government. He was appointed on a salary of nine shillings a day, excluding Sundays, and, proceeding to his post, arrived at Tenby, Wales, April 2d, "there to begin a career in the Geological Survey which was to last until he had risen to be the head of the service, and one of the foremost geologists of his day." The field work of the survey had been a year or two in progress in South Wales when Ramsay joined it, and there were then four assistants on the staff besides him; with, in addition, Prof. John Phillips as paleontologist.

The geological structure of the region in which he labored proved to be excessively complicated. "It had been only cursorily examined by previous observers," and "its real difficulties remained to be discovered and grappled with." Two years later Murchison spoke to the Geological Society of the results that had been obtained among strata so obscured by change, as "among the very highest triumphs of geological field work," and mentioned Mr. Ramsay as particularly cited by the director among the laborers who had obtained them. When in 1845 the survey was transferred to another department, and enlarged by the inclusion of Ireland, Mr. Ramsay was made local director for Great Britain, with a salary of £300. He was to have immediate supervision of the field work of the staff, to see that the mapping was all conducted on uniform methods, to confer with the officers on their difficulties, to bring the experience gained in one district to bear upon the elucidation of another, so as to insure harmony and steady progress in the field work, and the supervision of certain matters of indoor work. To a book of memoirs prepared by the members of the survey at this time, Ramsay contributed a paper on the Denudation of South Wales and the Adjacent Counties of England, which is characterized by his biographer as having been the first attempt to reduce the phenomena of denudation to actual measurement by constructing horizontal sections on a true scale, and showing what thickness of rock had actually been stripped off the face of the country. Some expressions in it led to a correspondence with Darwin and Lyell respecting the relative force of disturbance in geological and recent times. In March, 1847, he delivered his first lecture before the Royal Institution, on The Causes and Amount of Geological Denudations. In June of the same year he accepted the professorship of geology in University College, London, on terms by which it was arranged that his duties there should not conflict with those on the Geological Survey.

Two papers read before the Geological Society in April, 1848, one of which was by Professor Ramsay and W. T. Aveling, are interesting in the history of British geology, inasmuch as they gave the first published outline of the results up to that time obtained by the Geological Survey in North Wales. Although they were mere sketches and printed only in abstract, the director general, Sir Henry de la Beche, was apprehensive as to the consequences of their appearance before they came out through an official channel. He held that the results described were obtained by public servants at the cost of the state, and were the property of the country, and not of the individuals who made them. Some of the staff chafed under the restraint, and it was Professor Ramsay's privilege to effect an arrangement with the director general under which papers might be read at the society after having been submitted to and approved by him. Professor Ramsay thought this was a great point gained, for the survey was "not half enough before the public."

Professor Ramsay had held a very poor opinion of the glacial theory, and for many years during his surveys paid no attention to it. His first recorded mention of it was a diary entry in March, 1845, recording a "jolly night at the Geological; Buckland's glaciers smashed"—the reference being to a paper read by A. F. Mackintosh on the supposed evidences of the former existence of glaciers in North Wales, controverting conclusions previously published by Buckland.

It was during the survey of the Snowdon region, where "he achieved his chief geological triumph" in unfolding the complicated history of former volcanic activity contained therein, that he began to regard the subject of glacial action seriously, and this not till he had been at work there several months. His first reference to the subject occurs in the record of a visit by Robert Chambers to him at Llanberis, in August, 1848, when Chambers and he are mentioned as having gone "out on a glacial excursion up the Pass." A walk across the hills the next day revealed "splendid examples of glacial action." The search for such examples was the special object of Chambers's visit. By the 15th of November, however, he seems to have recognized everywhere the peculiar smoothing and polishing produced by moving ice, and he described the summit of a certain precipice as being, "as usual, well grooved with glacial undulations." His first public profession of belief in the former existence of glaciers in Wales was on the occasion of an address to the Geological Society in December, 1849, on the Geological Phenomena that have produced or modified the Scenery of North Wales, in which glacial action was presented prominently. The lecturer at the same time gave new and original proofs of the former presence of glaciers, "particularly instancing cases where mountain lakes were still held back by ridges of terminal moraine, and where large blocks of rock were perched on ice-worn crags." After this his notebooks contain frequent references to glaciers. Thus he went on, meeting frequent new illustrations of the history of the Glacial period, with his eyes now opened to the existence and significance of the facts whereby he was "led to perceive the meaning of many scattered surface features in South Wales to which, at the time he was surveying in that region, he had paid little heed." On the 26th of March, 1851, he communicated his first paper on glacial phenomena to the Geological Society, On the Sequence of Events during the Pleistocene Period as evinced by the Superficial Accumulations and Surface-markings of North Wales. Having withheld this paper from publication a year for more mature study, he issued it in 1852 under the title of On the Superficial Accumulations and Surface-markings of North Wales." The chief point insisted upon in it was the prevalence of two glaciations—one widespread and prior to the deposition of the drift, the other local in the valleys and posterior to it.

After their marriage, Professor Ramsay and his bride, Miss Louisa Williams, a Welsh lady, took a wedding tour through Switzerland, and Professor Ramsay got his first view of a real glacier far away toward the summit of the Uri Roth Stock," while crossing the Lake of the Pour Cantons, and observed the enormous contortions of the rocks of the region. He made also a special excursion to the Upper Aar Glacier. These experiences "quickened his desire to renew the study of the Welsh phenomena, and sent him back with a far more vivid conception of what the conditions must have been in the Ice age among the hills and valleys of this country." He "threw himself more and more into the study of the superficial contours of the land, and among the various agents by which these contours had been molded and modified he specially devoted himself to the investigation of the work of ice"; and among those who led the way to a more comprehensive investigation of these phenomena, "and who made the Glacial period one of the most absorbingly interesting of all the geological ages, a foremost place must always be assigned to Sir Andrew Ramsay."

The Government School of Mines, and of Science applied to the Arts, having been established on the removal of the Geological Museum to new quarters in 1851, Professor Ramsay was appointed lecturer on geology and its practical applications. This compelled his resignation of the professorship in University College. Besides the course of thirty lectures given twice a week, he delivered his courses in the system of evening lectures to artisans in which all the teachers engaged, giving six lectures each in the season, and which have been up to the present time eminently popular among the class for which they are designed. Professor Ramsay's first course, on the Utility of Geological Maps, was so acceptable that its repetition was called for. Among the results of the impulse given to the recognition of the importance of science in national progress that followed the Great Exhibition of 1851, was the establishment of the Department of Science and Art, under the control of the Board of Trade and afterward of the Privy Council, to which the Geological Survey, the Museum of Practical Geology, and the School of Mines were transferred. It was also decided to extend the Geological Survey to Scotland, and Professor Ramsay was sent there in 1853 to arrange for its operations, which were begun under his immediate direction in the summer of 1854. The onerous duty, which nobody was so competent as he to perform, of preparing, from his surveys, a connected description of the geology of North Wales, was undertaken, and became his chief indoor labor for twelve years. The chief of the survey. Sir Henry de la Beche, died in April, 1855. Professor Ramsay had been led by Sir Henry to suppose that he would be designated as his successor, but it was found that vigorous efforts were making to put in the office a man who had only a very slender acquaintance with geology. To avert this disaster, Professor Ramsay suggested to his associates that they unite in recommending Sir Roderick Murchison. The recommendation was heeded, and Murchison was appointed.

In the summer of 1857 Professor Ramsay came to America to attend the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at Montreal. He was warmly received by our leading geologists, and visited the Great Lakes, examined the more remarkable geological features of the State of New York, and was entertained at New Haven and Boston. "The chief geological features of this expedition" Sir Archibald Geikie says, "were given partly in a discourse to the Royal Institution, but more fully in a paper read before the Geological Society. Ramsay had not yet realized the massiveness of the land ice of the Glacial period. Like most of the geologists of the day, he still regarded the 'drift' as the result of transport by icebergs, and to the same agency he attributed the striæ on the sides and summits of the hills. He recognized the remarkably ice-worn character of Canadian topography, but he did not yet associate that character with a former extensive glaciation by land ice. Nevertheless, he now beheld the effects of this glaciation in a far grander scale than he had ever before seen them, and unconsciously he was accumulating material that would enable him to get rid of the paralyzing idea that the land must have been submerged beneath the ocean as far as the highest striations or drift deposits could be traced. He was not, however, able entirely to divest himself of the old error until the summer of 1861." Four summer vacations after this were spent, till 1862, in excursions to the Alps and to points of geological interest in Germany, where "Ramsay could hardly find himself face to face with new scenes without being led to notice and reflect on the features in them which bore on any of the questions in geology and physical geography which had always been with him such favorite subjects." During these tours he was revolving a problem that had never been seriously attacked, and of which no tenable solution had yet been proposed—that of the origin of lake basins. His attention had been directed to the subject in America, although he formed no new opinions here. But the recognition to which he had now (1861) come, that the older and greater glaciation here was the work of stupendous sheets of land ice, "gave a new turn to his thoughts regarding the terrestrial contours of glaciated regions" and he came to the conclusion that "in a vast number of cases, where the lakes lie in rock basins, these basins have actually been scooped out by the grinding power of land ice." He communicated his paper embodying these opinions at the meeting of the Geological Society, in 1862, succeeding that in which he had been elected its president. His views met with strong dissent from the older geologists, while "most of the younger bloods," as he called them, accepted them.

The imperfection of the geological record, to which Darwin had called attention, became more forcibly impressed on his mind. He was struck by the extraordinary gaps in the succession of organic remains, even when there was no marked physical interruption of the continuity of sedimentation, and connected them with geographical changes of which no other trace had survived. He had spoken on the subject at the meeting of the American Association, and now made "Breaks in the Succession of the British Strata" the subject of his presidential addresses in 1863 and 1864.

Another change in the organization of the Geological Survey was made in 1867, when Scotland was constituted a distinct branch, and Professor Ramsay's title became Senior Director for England and Wales. Sir Roderick Murchison died in October, 1871, and after a few months' delay for the consideration of various other questions. Professor Ramsay was appointed Director General of the Geological Survey, being, "after thirty-one years of service, placed officially at the head of the organization of which he had so long been the life and soul." The reward came to him, however, "too late to enable him to profit by it as he would have done had it been conferred ten or fifteen years sooner" One of his excursions abroad resulted in a paper on the Physical History of the Valley of the Rhine, and a discourse to the Royal Institution on the same subject. He resigned his lectureship, "which in these last years of failing power had become an increasing burden" in June, 1876. He was made president of the Swansea meeting of the British Association, in 1880, and presented an address embodying a general summary of all the geological branches in which he had worked. At the jubilee meeting the next year, in York, as the oldest surviving president of Section G, he was made its president again, and delivered the address, principally dealing with the progress of geology for the past fifty years, with much difficulty. Later in the fall he was knighted, and on the last day of 1881 he retired from the public service.

During the last ten years of his official life Sir Andrew Ramsay gave much attention to the physical history of river valleys, concerning which he sought to trace the cause of the flow of the rivers of a district in the ancient topography of the region, and published special papers on the valleys of the Rhine and the Dee. He was a thorough uniformitarian in geology.

It is not by the visible amount of published work—Sir Archibald Geikie gives a list of eighty-one books and papers published by him, forty-six maps, and twenty sectional drawings embodying results of his surveys—that we can rightly estimate the extent of Sir Andrew Ramsay's influence in promoting the advance of geology. For nearly thirty years he was a teacher of geology, and "year by year," Sir Archibald Geikie says, "a fresh band of young men came to listen to him, and to carry the fruits of his instruction to all parts of the world. Season after season he lectured to workingmen, who flocked in hundreds to hear him. His lectures were not written out, but delivered from notes, and were always kept up to the latest conditions of the science." Much of his work was published only in this way, or in informal remarks to the Geological Society, when in the excitement of discussion "he would pour out from his full stores of information, and, taking his audience into his confidence, would flash out new views that he had never communicated to any one before." Another form of instruction, less palpable, but equally valuable, was the practical training he gave the men of his staff in the Geological Survey. "Never was there a more delightful field instructor than he. Full of enthusiasm for the work, quick of eye to detect fragments of evidence. . . . he carried the beginner on with him, and imbued him with some share of his own ardent and buoyant nature. . . . He would take infinite pains to make any method of procedure clear, and was long-suffering and tender where he saw that the difficulties of the learner arose from no want of earnest effort to comprehend. . . . If a man had any geological faculty in him, it was impossible that it should not be stimulated and educated under such a teacher." He had a singular gift of conversation, "which enabled him to draw out of a man who had any special knowledge to impart such information as served to elucidate geological questions."

Professor Ramsay records in his diary that in 1843 he refused the Geological Survey of India; in 1859 he began to write popular geological articles for the Saturday Review, which he continued to contribute for several years; in 1862 he received from the King of Italy the order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus in recognition of his scientific attainments and of his services to Italian officers sent at various times to England on missions of scientific inquiry; in 1866 he received the Neill prize from the Royal Society of Edinburgh; in 1871 he received the Wollaston medal from the Geological Society; in 1879 he was elected a corresponding member of the Royal Academy of the Lincei, Italy; in 1880 he was awarded a royal medal by the Royal Society "for his long-continued and successful labors in geology and physical geography;" and he received the degree of LL. D. from the University of Edinburgh.